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Interviews

Femi Kuti: Fight to Win

By Published: October 20, 2004
Femi Anikulapo Kuti was born in London on 16 June 1962, but he grew up in the Nigerian capital Lagos. Femi developed a real passion for music in early life, and his father, the legendary sax-star Fela Kuti, taught his son to play almost as soon as he could walk and thus learning to play an impressive array of instruments at a young age. Breaking free of his father's influence later in his career, Femi went on to fuse Afro-beat with a broad variety of styles including jazz, juju, high-life, funk and hip-hop. Throughout his career Femi has combined his musical innovation with a firm commitment to political causes and social ideals. Since Fela died from AIDS in August of 1997, his stature has risen to god-like proportions among the international dance music community and especially among the millions of Nigerians on whose behalf Fela constantly prodded the government over his 30-year career. Femi has always insisted that the difference in his and his father's temperament has been caused by the fact that he has not had to live through the same atrocities as Fela. In the forthcoming period Femi will be releasing new DVD Live At The Shrine.

AAJ: Could you tell me something about your early musical history?

FEMI KUTI: I was given a trompett by my father when I was 8 or 9 and somebody, his cousin, taught me the skill of si major, and that was it, then nobody was there again to teach me or grow me. The next time, my father gave me the sax at 15, I really wanted to play music at that time, and there was a school band in my school and the manager wanted to teach me for two weeks. My mother wanted me to go to England, my father to go to Ghana. In both case I had to stop my music education two weeks after. But I really wanted to play music so I bought a saxophone and tried to teach myself and I joined his band in 1978 and I played there for six years, then I started my band in '86.

AAJ: You started your career in Fela Kuti's Egypt 80. What was it like to live and work in that surrounding?

FK: It's a different world. Scary so much confusion. Everybody was so hypocritical, pretending they were concerned about what my father was talking about, this trouble and all that, really inside there was nothing about what my father was preaching about. So I think that was one of the most difficult time full of pretenders and hyprocrites. I didn't see any love for my father amongst any of them, his friends, women... so I had to leave. It was the most difficult time of my life. Full of pain. I had to leave. I knew it would not get me anywhere, eventually.

AAJ: Who were some of your earlier influences when you first started, and do you still feel these influences today?

FK: My father was my first influence. When he had his first hits I was a kid and he would send us a copy of each album since we stayed with my mother when he was away recording. He was my greatest influence.

Then when i was at school, we started to listen to Michael Jackson, Temptations, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, the '70's from America were all over Lagos. When I moved with my father he told me if I wanted to play music I had to listen to jazz, that was the only music which would make me a musician. So I was forced to listen to Jaly Paka who I could not understand, I didn't like it at all, it was very surprising, since I was used to funk, that seemed crazy! So he told me to listen to something easier : James Moody What is Mood for Love , and I bought the right tape. Then I went on to my house, listened to Dizzy, Coltrane, and I became a jazz fanatic, I started to understand, and I realized it wasn't about beeing like them but finding myself in all this. So I think between any great musicians from the jazz area, my great influences through my father were Miles Davis, Coltrane, Dizzy, Duke (his orchestra), I was, listening to them everyday. Then I realized I had to stop and find my own way. Then I went to classical music, to discover what it was. So I would listen to classical music, and jazz. Funk, not really, during parties maybe...If you just listen, then you play their music, their notes, you be them, but nothing comes from you, you won't find yourself. When I read a book from Miles Davis, it was one of his major complaints that people were just imitating his music. None of the musicians who came after Coltrane, Miles Davis, were doing anything original. He hated that so much... So when I read this book, I understood I was not on the right track : I wanted to be a Coltrane, a Davis, a Parker... But there was no me.

AAJ: You have a new live album and a DVD Live At The Shrine. Please tell me about these new releases.

FK: Well, my company Barclay had sacked me because I sacked my French manager, and they were annoyed an African man sacking a French man... so they sacked me. Then UWE and MK2 came to Nigeria and said they wanted to record me, we said there was a studio in Lagos and then we thought we could record it at the shrine. And then, three days, the more stressful days of my life.. so tensed.. but it worked. We're looking forward to the release now. And I think it's one of the greatest things of my life. To build the Shrine, my sister and I, to record the Shrine, and now we can just keep on building. We are in a position where we can dictate the path of our life. She can dictate more. Because I have to be on the road. She now manages me and the Shrine. I have to be on the road, I have to get on with my carreer. But for the first time of our life, we have a place of our own. And we have it in Africa where our life is.

AAJ: How do you look back on older albums such as Shoki Shoki ? That album was a major hit here in Europe.

FK: It's part of the steps which climbed me. I can't complain on any of the album I have done. From the feedback I hear, it's just getting better. Now it's how to meet and break the barriers of Live at the Shrine , which will be the challenge now. Because if people love this so much, to break this one will more difficult. After Shoki Shoki... what were we going to do? There was so much pressure with Fight To Win. We tried to get more musicians involved. It was very difficult. Eventually it came out. I think with Live at The Shrine , they are sticking me to higher highs. And now I think my greatest challenge, I feel ready for it, and I think I'll be up to it, my greatest challenge will be the next album. Life is short and I want to go forward. I want to die with a smile. I'd like to fill total fullfillment at the end of my life.

AAJ: What does the name Shoki Shoki refer to?

FK: It's my nick name because a song was called "Shoki Shoki," then I used it for my album. When I arrived in Lagos, I was all "Shoki Shoki" in the streets! I was talking about explicit sex, a professor of sexology! So they gave me the nick name. It means sex guru, sex master. I was describing the best positions, how to do it! Having fun, cracking jokes. Describing, you know the show time joints : when you have quick sex, run out, go back to work. I described everything in the album with those guys, they have their ties, they have a wife, and they do a quick one in quick joints, and then they go back to the office and pretend nothing has happened I was like "Shoki Shoki Master!".

AAJ: The song that became a hit, "Beng Beng Beng," has a sexual connotation because of which it was banned in Nigeria. How do you feel when something like that happens to a musician/artist?

FK: I was very annoyed. Nobody did anything about it you know. But it was what made it even more popular so could I complain? And unfortunatly for the government, everybody has satellite in Nigeria. It's so stupid! You ban something, but it's still on every TV since everyone has satellite. So a ban is really stupid. I try to play it live everytime! Luckily a lot of people still talk about it. We don't have a government, when the government itself talks rubbage. Africa is not even a village! We are still living in the stone age. No lights, no life quality. Nothing works, people can't afford anything. The government is very proud to have provided mobile phones but no one has money to pay the credit, so it's just "call me back" and every one hangs up! As a leader you give your people the worst. Is that leadership?

AAJ: How did you choose the combination of musicians that appear on Fight To Win ?

FK: Most of them where chosen by friends. I didn't know most of them till I was introduced. I stopped listening to the radio, I don't want to have anything to do with someone who's not talking about how to make life progress. I don't want people showing off to me. I'm just concerned about my heritage, my life... when I see what's going on around me, I cannot stand it : commercials, TV....

I don't listen to anything. My son, myself, I don't want the TV on. I don't want the radio on. It's somebody trying to sell something to thousands of people "hey, it's the best hit ...", all lies! He influences you! I believe that some of the best music, and musicians, we'll never know them: they are in the metro! They don't make money! They are practicing the whole day long! You have to make at least eight hours of music a day! There's no easy way in music.

AAJ: In the forthcoming period you'll be touring Europe and you'll be participating in a charity festival in London that will be a tribute to Fela. The funds raised from this festival will be given to organisations fighting AIDS. You are someone that constantly works on education and raising the awareness against this disease. Please tell me about the charity work you've been doing?

FK: I don't believe in any charity organization. I chose this one because I don't believe in any of those. I just believe in me, my sister and my son. I've seen many projects but I've never seen any projects working in my life time yet. And I don't expect any project to work ever. When I see Michael Jackson for Ethopia, it was a very big project. But they were better before it! There have never been worse. What were they doing when my father was getting beaten? When he was locked up? Nobody came! And now everyone talks about Africa Fela! But nobody fights for him, for the real cause! I'm just playing cause I love to play. But with my money I'll do my own path, I don't need them. But I don't want to be judged and I don't judge them.

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